The sun. The day had started with a circle of fire not too hot, just enough to warm my body as it emerged from behind the dunes. Seated on the sand, away from the hubbub of the caravan, I waited for the caravanner to start the daily morning training of his hawk, a cup of coffee in my hands. But he did not show up. I said my prayer asking for light and protection. Because there was still some time until camp was broken and we continued on our journey for another day, I let myself be enveloped by thoughts. Time. I thought about time. The mystery it represents. If the universe is curvilinear, as quantum physics teaches, shouldn’t time also be seen in a non-linear, even erratic way? Swift, yet slow; treacherous yet friendly; executioner and yet a master; implacable or a delusion; uniform or variable; master or a tool? I have seen time demolish absolute certainties to build other truths; wrongful convictions to be repaired, despite irrefutable evidence. I have seen people remaking their stories over time; wrongly designed projects leading to good outcomes due to their timing and circumstances previously unthought of. Some paths have led me to the edge of a cliff. When I was about to fall, in due time, despite the hazards, wings grew out so that I could fly over the abyss.
Looking to that seemingly endless sea of sand, I was lost in thought. Inferences aside, I had already completed what I believed to be more than half of my existence. I asked myself if I had enjoyed it in the best possible way. How to direct the time I still had left? How long did I have left? What accomplishments I would be able to achieve during the time I still had left?
Wise men say we must enjoy each day as if it were the last.
In the face of this line of reasoning, I recalled people I loved, words I would like to tell them, kisses I still had to give, hugs I had postponed. I thought of some people I had had disagreements with for reasons that had no reason. I would like to reconcile with them, to say that everything was fine, and that I wish them well. I thought about mundane pleasures; I longed for the moist kisses of my girlfriend, I wanted steak and fries for lunch and chocolate ice cream for dessert. I yearned to be with my daughters, I wished to be a better parent. I wanted to thank my parents. Furthermore, I noted I still had to parachute jump, circumnavigate the globe alone on a sailboat, and write a book about the crossing, among other things on my bucket list. I laughed myself silly, but I was also melancholic. I took a firm decision to live every day as if it were my last. Time was a valuable asset and I had to use it as best as I could.
It was when I heard the sound of the trumpet. Not the one of the end of time, but the one signaling that the caravan was about to leave for another day of the crossing, towards the largest oasis of the desert. I had engaged with the caravan hoping that a wise dervish who lived there shared with me a little of his enormous knowledge about the “many secrets of heaven and earth”. Who knows, perhaps he would reveal the secrets of time to me? I put my gear in the saddlebag and, on my camel, went to take my place in the long line for the march. I spent the day immersed in reflections about time. It was impossible not to recall that time had taken away a portion of my lean body and almost all the hair I had in my youth. My beard was becoming greyer and greyer each passing day. I knew it is always possible to follow a strict diet, to do exhausting workouts, to take hormones for esthetic purposes, to undergo surgery and implants to replace what time had taken away. But I confess that, even though I respect people who do these things, I was not willing to.
With the passing of the hours and the slow moving of the camels, distress escalated many grades within me. There, in the middle of the desert, there was nothing I could do to start rescuing my emotional debts, which would be worsened if that was to be the final day of my existence. After all, no one knows the day they will be gone; it is an open ticket. I realized that I did not have to be in the middle of the desert, there was a bunch of important things waiting for me. Because distress normally invites sadness or annoyance to keep it company, it didn’t take long and I was deeply impatient with the caravan and dejected with the choices I should have made but did not; with the things I should do at that moment, but could not. There were many rescues the past was demanding from me. That was to be a very bad last day, I thought. However, deep inside me, I believed I still had much time to sort out my debts to myself.
This is when I noticed a commotion among the caravan staff. They moved around on their horses looking disturbed and seemed to talk among themselves very nervously. The fact that the caravanner had not trained his hawk in that morning came to my mind, and I recalled he had not done that either on the day we were caught by a sandstorm. I thought we could be on the verge of a similar type of danger, but the storm was of a different nature. Way more dangerous. From afar, at the top of the dunes, I could see a number of black spots which, at first, I could not identify. Little by little, they grew in size as they started to move. Accordingly, the members of the caravan staff started to speak loudly and gallop faster and faster. Soon came the order for the caravan to close itself in a circle. One of the many nomadic tribes of the desert, some of them known for their savagery, was preparing an assault.
The caravan became condensed in a single core. The members of the staff, all of them with guns in their hands, formed a circle of protection around the group. However, it was not difficult to realize our protectors were in lesser number. “God, what am I doing here? This is not my reality”, I kept thinking to myself. In fact, I did not have to be there. On the other side of the globe many important business matters were waiting for me; way more serious than a conversation with a dervish, however wise. He would not reveal to me any piece of wisdom that had not yet been recorded in a book, available to be studied on a quiet fall evening at a cottage on the top of a hill, being warmed by a cup of coffee by the fireplace. What a stupid way to die I was facing! One of the many wrong choices I had made over my lifetime, I thought. I was very afraid at that moment.
Fear is an emotional virus that rapidly spreads around. It becomes an epidemic, disseminating panic and creating a dense cloud of energy that fogs the clarity of mind. This is precisely what one could see on the faces of traders and pilgrims travelling with the caravan. This was the emotion that took over my free thinking and imprisoned my good feelings. I had been taken hostage by fear. This is such a bad feeling. Fear is capable of depleting all our strength; of drying out the clear sources that animate life.
At that moment, time no longer made sense to me.
Serial thefts, rapes, murders were the possibilities I thought more likely to happen in that assault. To be left stranded, alone, without water, food or a mount in the middle of the desert seemed to be quite a gift from heavens in face of fear that insisted in showing that the worst was unavoidable. Fear is a powerful shadow. It has a taste and a smell; it conveys authority and shows itself to be unremitting. I felt it at every breath I took. Fear exuded in the air. It was in the dim gaze of people; in the cold sweat that ran down on faces; on lips dry for disbelief in life; in hands that shook out of helplessness.
We were surrounded. In the forefront, members of the staff were positioned to defend the caravan. I cannot gauge how long it took. Perhaps seconds lasted an eternity. Suddenly, for everyone’s surprise, a trader detached himself from the group and ran toward the leader of the assaulting tribe. He knelt and offered a bag of money for his freedom. He negotiated his permission to be released and continue alone with his camel and provisions. After some moments of tension and outrage, the tribe leader decided to keep the trader’s money, but did not allow him to continue his journey alone. He determined that the trader should rejoin the caravan group. That had been a harsh sentence. With his head low, feeling a mix of frustration and shame, the man returned to our group. The thugs were not willing to trade. Fear grew even more. In me and in the other travelers.
Time taught me its first lesson. It is capable of putting an end to existence without notice. When I woke up on that morning, even though I had been thinking about time, I could not believe that was to be my last day. To me, the party was to be over in an absurd, senseless way. I had postponed so many important things I wanted to do. I had prioritized some because of pleasure or vanity; others I did out of immediate needs. However, valued situations, those that speak to my heart, like my dreams, the exercising of my gifts, the encounters and reconciliations that were moved by pure love were postponed to the following day. A day that would no longer exist. Yes, I had loved, I had experienced moments that had inspired awe, but much less than what I could have; much less than I would like to have had. I had wasted good part of my time in situations that had ultimately shown to be devoid of importance.
I understood what I would take in my luggage when my time was up. And what I would not take, out of carelessness and stupid neglect. That was time’s second lesson. Some situations or people, whether because they seem to be available at all times, whether because they represent a complex challenge, I had put on the bucket list. Whoever has a bucket list has not learned how to deal with their priorities. I had given up the depth of life in exchange for an appearance of existence. Just because I had not realized I was my own heir; the legacy of any person is only the love they had experienced.
I recalled a verse of Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira: “An entire life that could have been but was not.” No question this is one of the saddest verses of literature, in which the poet summarizes his frustration for having wasted the opportunities of a lifetime. No, nothing can be more melancholic.
I felt someone was looking at me. As if attracted by a magnet, my gaze met the gaze of the beautiful woman with lapis lazuli eyes. At a distance from me, she was on the back of her strong black stallion, undaunted. Behind the caravanner, she was attentive to everything. However, what caught my attention the most was realizing she had not a hint of fear in her features. Her attitude gave rise to a shred of hope in me. I envied the dignity with which that woman behaved in the face of such a difficult moment. The movement of her lips allowed me to read the words she had whispered in my direction: “This is no time to let yourself be enveloped by fear; the time is right to embrace hope.”
After some moments of standstill, the leader of the tribe stepped forward. Out loud, he warned every one of the caravan that it would be silly to resist. They were in greater number and better armed. He added he was a good man and wanted to avoid a carnage. If there was no reaction, they would get whatever they wanted and would not kill us. I even thought that was a generous offer. Fear has this power.
This is when the caravanner positioned his horse in front of the circle of protection formed by the armed members of the staff. With a firm and oddly enough serene tone of voice, he said for everyone to hear: “There is no question your proposition shows your magnanimity in trying to avoid a tragedy. I am a quiet man; I enjoy peace. However, my temper is one of fight, my life is filled with challenges. Out of respect for myself, I pay heed to the truths of my heart. And it says that when I do not bend to the cravings of fear, every day is a good day to die.”
The leader of the group mocked the discourse of the caravanner. He said that heroes normally fall for silly reasons; a dead hero is just another stiff. He reinforced once again that it was useless to resist. It would be wiser to surrender. The caravanner replied: “There is truth when you say we will stain the desert with our blood. Certainly, the caravan will not survive. However, at least a man of your group will leave his blood mixed with ours.” He paused and then warned: “And this man will be you, the leader. Perhaps you will be the only one of your group. If you pay attention, you will notice that all our guns are pointing at your head. There is not a chance we will all miss the shot. We will certainly depart from this world today, but we will take your soul along with us. Your men will return to your settlement with their saddlebags filled with riches, but you will not be with them. Their wives and children will rejoice when they arrive; for your wife and children, all they will be left with are tears.” Then, he whispered softly: “On the following day, another leader will be chosen.”
The desert was taken by absolute silence. As if life was dancing on the sharp edge of a single word. Time seemed to have stopped. I could clearly see fear in the eyes of the leader of the band. The caravanner had handled fear artfully, as if he had had moved a piece in a game of chess.
With even more skill, to prevent the check-mate of embarrassing the leader before his men, the caravanner offered him a honorable way out, or, at least, a non-embarrassing one for a merciless leader before his men: “You already have the money the trader offered you. In addition, to show that I acknowledge your generosity in letting us continue with no harm or loss, I offer you this valuable necklace.” He made a gesture with his head and the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes trotted on her horse to the side of the caravanner. She took out the necklace she was wearing and handed it out. Undecided because of the many feelings and ideas mixing in his mind, the leader asked if the necklace was made of gold or gemstones. The caravanner explained: “It is not made of gold or gemstones. It was made of simple material, but it is sacred. It shows us the importance of goodwill among people, of decisions we must make using our heart. This creates a power one cannot measure.” Visibly confused, insecure and embarrassed, the leader accepted the gift. He said it would serve as an offering for the gods of the desert to free his tribe from hunger, plague and sandstorms. It was clear he did not believe in that, but it was the excuse he had found to disguise his own fear in front of his men. Then, they left. The caravan swiftly moved on to another direction.
The remainder of the day was tense. However, people had a different gleam in their eyes. It was like the light of a new chance they had after that morning. Late afternoon, as usual, we stopped to set up camp for the night. The more experienced members of the staff assured us that the caravan had not been followed by the band. They explained the strong wind that had blown during the day had erased the track of the caravan. I didn’t feel like having supper. I moved away to think. All the events that had taken place on that day had to be understood, so they could serve as a lesson. To be light does not mean to live idly. This is when I saw the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes captivated by the sunset. Because she did not object when I approached, I sat next to her. I asked if we could talk; she nodded in consent. I told her about the coincidence that, on that morning, I had meditated about the power and the mystery of time. I told her about how the events of that day would foster my understanding of these issues. I mentioned all that I had thought and felt. I ended by saying that from that day on I would live according to the teachings of wise men, who said we have to live each day as if they were our last. After all, we don’t have time to lose. The woman shrugged and disconcerted me: “Or to gain.”
Seeing my puzzlement, she explained: “To live each day as if it were the last responds to the idea that we have to enjoy each second so that there is time to do all that we have not done, to experience what we still have to feel, to sort out our pending issues. It is like one is close to the end and tries to enjoy the time that is left. Always as if there is little time left; always as if one is late for the last meeting. When we live each day as if it were the last, we act hastily, following the pace of fear. As a ball in which the orchestra can stop playing at any moment. We live like we are forever indebted to life.” As if she guessed the thoughts I had on my mind minutes earlier, she added: “We should not live idly, but we must be light; lightness does not suit those who are distressed, hasty or disturbed. Who can be happy like that?”
“I live each day as if it were my first.”
“So, I move towards the encounters and hugs one day I want to have. I cherish the new each morning, I cherish the enchantment of dreams and the wonders of exercising my gift tirelessly. I know that my gift, as the gifts of all people, is a sacred tool because it sets me in motion on the path of light. This is to drink from the clear source of faith. I become worthy. This is not an easy road, not every wish is accomplished; however, I walk on it happy to realize that the steps I take, however small, change the landscape and embellish the day. I am aware of my priorities, but I face each one of them deliberately, so that I am not distressed; with no fear, so that I don’t get lost within myself; this fills me with peace. I know that each day I can start over again, that errors are not prisons, but lessons; they don’t have to be keepers because they can become masters. This makes me free.” She paused briefly and then continued: “Time is not the executioner or the teacher; these roles I choose. You should choose yours. Time is love. Time is related to plenitude. It closes a cycle of existence so that you are not exhausted in yourself, but that life is renewed within you. It allows endless beginnings under new conditions, so that we can, at another time, turn a draft into a fair copy. To be aligned with the new is to have the infinite in you. Is to understand that the ball never ends. In fact, not even time. So, why should you fear living?”
“Rather than fearing time, invite it to dance with you. The orchestra will always play another song. One after the other. It plays the songs of endless love. It makes the infinite dance inside you.”
I had teary eyes. Without a word, the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes gave a smooth kiss on my forehead and left. That had been a bittersweet day. The sun was setting on the desert. The infinite was rising in me.
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.